Sunday, March 23, 2008

Jeffrey Sachs, The End of Poverty

I had my reservations about this book from the start. My initial resevations turned into alarm when I found out that the book was foreworded by Bono (there is always something to say about an academic's self-esteem if he turns to a music celebrity for endorsement; some might argue it is a sagacious marketing ploy though but I find call it insecurity).
On the first 80+ pages of the book the author provides the 2+2=4 version of economics which completely misses the audience as it seems to be too non-inclusive for the uninitiated and completely redundant in its simplicity for those with a background in economics. One important thing to remember is that Sachs didn't set out to write a cursory overview of a balanced approach to the eradication of poverty but was agenda-driven from the get-go. There are several items on his agenda: (1) advocate for external debt cancellation for ... well, basically, anyone state which wants it, (2) smear the work of the IMF in all its applications, (3) the world's poverty is, in one way or another, the developed countries' -- particularly the West's -- fault which he considers to be a debt owed to the developing ones.
The rest of the book is a kaleidoscope of Sachs' personal travelog (which sometimes gets entertaining for what it is) and the continued lambasting of the West for everything that is wrong with the present economic -- and sometimes political -- situation of the developing world. In these assessments Sachs gives the reader a polarized view of world politics, a matter in which he does not cut an imagine of an astute expert. Examples of this are legion throughout the book. One thing that comes to mind is Sachs' portrayal of the Renamo as 'violent' and tacitly supported by the US and South Africa while, I presume, assuming that the USSR-bankrolled Frelimo were angels pillaged by the evil forces of the Renamo. Anyone who has studied the Mozambique conflict for half a day knows that this wasn't the case and that there is a wealth of scholarship attesting to the fact that both the Remano and the Frelimo were equally brutal and committed horrific acts of atrocity. The author, however, gives no credence to these assertions of others because they don't fit his agenda which is to smear the West and its foreign policy. Another glaring example of such misrepresentation is Sachs' reference to the African slave trade which he determines as having existed for 300 years, a totally untenable argument since it is a well-established fact that slave trade in Africa was started by Africans, not Europeans, to which Europeans were late-comers and contributed, some argue, not more than 10% to it. Slave trade in Africa continues to this day and is powered by Africans themselves. There are literally thousands of NGO reports to this effect, which Sachs chose to ignore because they don't work for his agenda.
If you absolutely have to get this book, get it on audio and get it over with while on the road. Otherwise, there are plenty of quality titles on economics, history of conflict, history of international organizations and other topics that this book purports to deal with. Go with those, particularly if you are not yet in a position to tell scholarship from demagoguery.
I got a tremendous kick out of this book for all the wrong reasons – I merely enjoy misguided arguments too much, particularly when they come from esteemed Harvard scholars, to miss this pearl.